Number. 29 © CDTL 2003
Constructing the Argumentative Essay
Assistant Professor Kenneth Paul A.S-S. Tan
University Scholars Programme/Department of Political Science

The following suggestion is targeted at the undergraduate student who writes several argumentative essays every semester, but who has never formally learnt how to do so and rarely takes the time to reflect on how it should be done. The suggestion takes the form of a model that highlights what one might expect to find in the three main parts of a good argumentative essay. As a model to help you reflect on what you are doing well and what you should be doing differently, it is necessarily categorical and systematic. In trying to master the model, you should not inadvertently become a slave to it. Otherwise, your essays will become rigid and sterile. Instead, use this as a mental checklist that you can build upon and even be playful with, developing in the process a confident, independent and original voice.

A. Introduction

1. Identify and state your objects of analysis. The topic or question will often ask you to discuss central texts, key ideas or concepts, issues, or a combination of these.
2. Provide some background to the thesis and reveal the motive for arguing it. An effective description of the context, situation or problem can demonstrate why the thesis is interesting and worth arguing. Here is your chance to convince your readers (including the marker) that your essay is worth reading—something not to be taken for granted!
3. Formulate and state your thesis.

A thesis is a clearly articulated general idea that expresses the main point you want to argue in your essay. It should be:

  • sufficiently focused and narrow so that it can be fully discussed in your essay;
  • a position that is debatable, and dependent on the strength of evidence and logical development; not a simple statement of fact, a declaration of belief that cannot be reasonably substantiated, a tautological or circular expression, an obvious point, and so on;
  • interesting.
4. Define the key terms, state the assumptions, and describe the methodology.

Key terms: You will often find terms in the question, topic or your thesis itself whose meanings are essentially contested or indeterminate or ambiguous because of colloquial misuse. These terms may be crucial in your larger analysis and, if for no other reason than this, must be defined (even tentatively) before you can hinge your arguments on them.

Assumptions: The set of fundamental ‘givens’ that make your arguments consistent, coherent, and meaningful can be stated at the start. This is sometimes done in the interest of intellectual honesty and to indicate to the reader where you might be coming from ideologically.

Research methodology: You may want to describe your main analytical approach (e.g. inter-disciplinary), the sources that you use in your analysis (e.g. archival material, literature reviews, internet forums) and how you obtained them (e.g. interviews, opinion surveys, regression analysis).

5. Sketch a roadmap. If your thesis tells the readers where you want to take them in the journey that is your essay, a roadmap will tell them how they will get there—which main roads, turning points, and detours they can expect to take.

B. Body

1. Construct your arguments.

To develop your thesis, you will need to construct a series of smaller supporting arguments that are relevant to the thesis. While every argument should be directed to the thesis, the individual arguments should not simply be linked together as a random chain of implicitly related but distinct reasons. Instead, they should follow a coherent and logical sequence that builds up, often dramatically, to a convincing and satisfying restatement of the thesis in the conclusion.

Using clear topic sentences that state the main point of each paragraph can help you to be sensitive to the shape of your arguments. You should also think about how the arguments can come together to produce a dramatic build-up, going through various twists and turns, and allowing for conflicts, negotiations, and resolutions to play out. Other related considerations include a sense of timing (e.g. when to reveal certain arguments or facts, for dramatic effect) and proportion (e.g. how much space should be given to each argument).

2. Support your arguments with evidence. Broadly speaking, you can support your arguments with empirical evidence in the form of facts, data, statistics, examples, controlled observations, and so on. You should not simply mention them; you should instead elaborate on them by giving details to be connected deliberately with the arguments being made. Also, you should try to give an indication of the reliability of your evidence. You can also support your arguments with academic and professional expertise that you cite or quote directly. To avoid plagiarism, you must cite your sources.
3. Deal with counter-arguments. You will also need to imagine and anticipate reasonable objections to your thesis and the arguments developed around it. You will need to describe these objections fairly (i.e. don’t create straw men to be knocked down effortlessly). And you will then need to deal with them decisively, demonstrating the superiority of your argument (or some adjusted form of your argument). This not only strengthens your arguments, but also makes your essay more complicated and therefore more interesting.
4. Provide your reader with the necessary orientation.

It is always important to write with a clear sense of audience (i.e. ‘Who are you writing this for?’). Knowing who your readers are will give you a good idea of what kind and extent of background information you will need to provide before your ideas, arguments, and evidence can make full sense to the readers.

At the start of the journey, you provided readers with a roadmap. During the journey itself, you should provide clear signposts along the way to give readers a good sense of where they are in this journey. You might, for example, pause at critical junctures in the essay to inform readers about what you have done so far, where you are in the overall argument, and what you are going to do next.

C. Conclusion

1. Retrace your steps. Once you have arrived at the conclusion, it is often a good idea to remind readers, in summary, where they have been. This is where your topic sentences can come in handy.
2. Restate your thesis. If your arguments have been focused, strong and well developed, you can now confidently reassert your original thesis, or an adjusted or improved version of the thesis that has taken into account the counter-arguments dealt with along the way.
3. Point towards the wider significance of your essay.

This aspect is not altogether necessary for writing a good essay, and it may in fact severely weaken your essay if handled without skill. In any case, writers are usually advised not to introduce any ‘new’ ideas in the conclusion.

However, if you are indeed confident, you may want to consider including a few lines explaining what further implications your thesis might have for other similar or wider questions. You may even want to make recommendations for further study or for action (e.g. in the case of policy papers). And you may also want to try your hand at ‘scenario-painting’. Once again, be aware of the perils.

4. Make an impact with the final word. Do not end your essay with a sentence that seems to have a ‘nice ring to it’, but in fact means nothing or is completely irrelevant to the arguments. Instead, you might want to end with a witty and relevant detail, illustration, recurring motif, quotation, or anecdote that may keep readers thinking about your essay long after they have read it.


Further Reading

Hacker, D. (1999). A Writer’s Reference (4th ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Harvey, G. (1998). Writing with Sources. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Tan, Kenneth P.A.S-S. (2003). ‘Writing the Argumentative Essay: Language and Style’. Successful Learning, Issue No. 36. Singapore: Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning, National University of Singapore.


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